Tuesday, 9 April 2013
I’ve been feeling quite poetic lately for some reason. For me, that impetus is always a bit sporadic and tends to ebb away into more staid and pedantic periods, so I’m going to seize this chance to draw some parallels between poetry and exercise. For the moment, I want to focus on the Haiku form (and related Japanese-derived short poetry like Senryu and Tanka), and what that particular aesthetic or impulse might have to teach us in the realm of fitness and physical expression. I’ve always really loved Haiku. The form sometimes gets disparaged a bit for being simplistic and childish (two things which I am, proudly), but the really great Haiku poems are something magical. On the surface they seem so simple – something that anyone could do – but they also somehow hint at the totality of existence within those 3 lines of text. It’s that universality that William Blake was talking about when he wrote “to see a world in a grain of sand.” I hate to over-intellectualize any of this, because Haiku is the complete opposite of that. At its heart, it pure, unprocessed, direct experience of a fleeting moment, before our brains have a chance to apply any critical or reflective lens. The idea really resists explanation, and is probably best conveyed through examples (of some of my favourites):
On the fifteenth floor
the dog chews a bone-
Screech of taxicabs.
In my old home
which I forsook, the cherries
are in bloom.
Right at my feet
and when did you get here,
No one travels
Along this way but I,
This autumn evening.
- Matsuo Basho
Because of the brevity, it’s important that every word has a purpose. There can be nothing extraneous. The purpose is not to reflect or deconstruct. Great haiku are those that just provide that spark, that instant of direct experience with the ineffable or sublime. They capture those moments when a person is just thunderstruck by the beauty of everything – sometimes a sad, melancholic sort, but beauty nonetheless. And hopefully, when done right, that spark triggers something in the reader almost as powerfully as in the perceiver himself, through some kind of shared cosmic consciousness or something. So, you might ask, what bearing does this have on your next workout? Well, funny you should ask that grasshopper. I think that the ideal workout shares some commonalities with a great haiku poem. Such as:
1. It is brief. Now this isn’t to say that there’s no place for endurance work. There is (occasionally)…but I really feel that the majority of workouts should be short and intense. It’s pretty well documented that after about the 30 minute mark (of weightlifting for example) hormone levels take a rather nasty turn toward higher cortisol and lower testosterone production. Not good, not good. Few of my workouts last longer than 30 minutes. If it’s strictly weights, that means maybe 8x3 (Rookie Journal is a proponent of this and it’s really helped me increase poundages) of either squats or deadlifts, or perhaps 4-5 sets of reverse pyramid training, a la Leangains. Either way, the workout focuses on one big compound movement with minimal, if any, auxiliary work. You don’t need to do leg curls and lunges and extensions afterwards. Just squat (or deadlift, bench, etc.) and get out. With good chunks of rest between sets for recovery, that usually ends up at between 25-35 minutes per session. Structuring workouts around a single, comprehensive multi-joint movement like this allows, or rather forces me to focus on one thing and doing that one thing well. That’s the essence of haiku right there, I think. Removing distractions and focusing on only what the universe is doing right at the singular point where you are now. There’s nothing like a trying to force out a 20-rep final RPT set of back squats to remind a person of exactly where they are!
2. It’s intense – staggeringly so. Just like a great haiku leaves the reader almost breathless by the beauty and poignancy of the image, so to should a great workout leave a person breathless (and floored, quite literally). I know I’ve done my best when I literally collapse onto the cold concrete of my garage floor after the final set. That’s the sort of intensity I aim for. That’s not to say I’m successful every time, because I’m certainly not. But I attempt to bring that intensity every time. In my mind, one shouldn’t approach a workout in any sort of half-assed way. That’s when you’re liable to get hurt or, at the very least have your progress stalled.
Building on the brevity point above, some Crossfit-style workouts or other metabolic conditioning-type work is so intense that it must, by necessity, be brief. I did ‘Helen’ for the first time last weekend, which is one of the sort of benchmarking Crossfit workouts. It took me about 13 minutes (which sucks by the way!), and at the end of it there was no way I was doing anything else. For the highly skilled people who do that workout sub-10 minutes, the intensity is even higher. The point is, like the haiku, the intensity is such that nothing further is required. In the poem, the image and sentiment is conveyed, powerfully and succinctly. It requires nothing further. The intensity of a great workout demands that there is nothing further.
3. It’s simple. I’ve made my best progress with routines of this sort. I made the mistake in my younger years of copying workouts out of muscle magazines and the like. I used to believe things such as needing to do multiple curl variations to target the different heads of my biceps. Those kinds of things might be necessary for elite level bodybuilders who are jammed full of chemical assistance and desperate to get one additional striation somewhere. For the rest of us, just do chin-ups! Your biceps will get enough work, along with your back, core, shoulders and even chest. Once that’s easy, strap on a weighted belt. No one who’s able to rep out chin-ups with 100lbs hanging off their waist is going to suffer from small biceps.
Movements like the squat, deadlift, muscle-up, rope climb, sprint, etc. are, like the haiku, almost perfect in their completeness. They’re a microcosm of human movement patterns in one package, just as the haiku is a microcosm of nature (or at least the human experience of it) in seventeen syllables. But simple doesn’t imply easy. Just as it’s extremely difficult to fully convey an experience through 3 lines of verse, these types of exercises are extremely difficult because they require the whole body working together in concert, rather than isolated muscles. And because they are so hard, many people avoid them and instead fall prey to the temptation (propagated by those wanting to sell magazines and training sessions) to do more, less-effective things. In my mind, for both exercise and poetry, improving should be about paring down and eliminating the non-essentials, rather than adding more complexity. There’s great beauty in economy, whether it be a perfect line of verse or a flawless heavy back squat.
4. It provides a new perspective. A good haiku changes the reader in the sense that it recalls some past experience and forces a new way of looking at it, or provides a glimpse into something universal. A great workout provides a new perspective in the sense that it changes the person doing it - Not only physically (hopefully, in terms of anabolic adaptation) but also mentally/psychologically. Moving a weight that you were unable to only a week or a month prior is transformational. It changes a person’s self-perception of what they’re capable, and that has reverberations in all other facets of life. Of course progress isn’t linear and there is always going to be failure. But as Henry Rollins made clear, sometimes the kindest thing that the iron can do for you is to not budge. Failure is a great teacher in the sense that it forces a reexamination of technique, preparation, mindset, etc. to ensure that it doesn’t happen the next time.
Transformational moments like these are memorable. I still can recall the exact time and place when, for whatever reason, a particular haiku has resonated with me. And of course, for the author, that instant of composition is supremely memorable. So to, I still remember certain transformational fitness milestones – first muscle-up, first time benching bodyweight, first handstand pushup, etc. Even seemingly small improvements are often transformatively significant. Today, for instance, I strung together 10 consecutive muscle-ups. Not exactly world-class and only a one-rep improvement from my previous max, but to me it’s significant. To me it matters because expands my view of what I’m capable of.
5. It’s frugal. There may be some great haiku poems about Maybachs and gold toilet seats, but I haven’t read any yet. Most of the ones that I love tend to eschew any kind of material concerns. They’re about simple scenes in nature, free to everyone. Or perhaps they incorporate some basic household scenes, objects or characters. Often, poverty is an undercurrent (not the abject kind but more of a simplicity associated by having only the essentially requisites of life and no more).
I got a great workout this past Saturday by doing sprints down at the local soccer field while pushing my kids in the wheelbarrow. There was another little girl there with her dad and once she got playing with my daughter she, of course, wanted to go for a wheelbarrow ride as well. With all three kids in there, it probably ended up being about 120lbs or so. And let me tell you that after about 8-10 sprints of roughly 100 yards, I was done like dinner! And all it required was a sunny day, an old rusty farming implement (which I originally found on the side of the road being thrown away), and three smiling kids yelling “One more time! Fastest ever!” No fancy equipment or expensive gear required. Actually, I was in jeans.
Perhaps that’s also why the most satisfying workouts are often those done outside, amongst the wilder elements of nature – a trail sprint up a mountainside or a swim through whitewater or the open ocean, for instance. Those ancient Greeks were onto something with their outdoor arenas and training grounds. Something about the minimalism of it all and the exposure to nature in all its wild vicissitudes.
above the moor
not attached to anything
a skylark singing
On one hand, these things make us feel small and humble, but also that we’re a not insignificant part of something larger.
Friday, 22 February 2013
Rage – O Goddess, sing of the ruinous rage of Achilles, son of Peleus,
that brought innumerable losses to the Achaeans
and cast down so many brave heroes to Hades,
great warriors’ souls, their bodies carrion
that brought innumerable losses to the Achaeans
and cast down so many brave heroes to Hades,
great warriors’ souls, their bodies carrion
Feasts for the dogs and the crows.
- The Iliad - Book 1.
- The Iliad - Book 1.
The poem’s initial word, μῆνιν (mēnin) is often translated as “wrath, rage or fury” and sets the theme for much of what’s to follow. In some ways, it serves as a reminder that rage, when allowed to run wild at least, is not very conducive to a long and happy life. At least it didn’t turn out so hot for Achilles, minus the everlasting glory and fame.
For the most part, I think this is a pretty valuable lesson. There’s not much to be gained from anger – for the most part it’s a pretty useless and unproductive emotion. Nothing much good comes from it. I think one notable exception to this, however, is weightlifting. Rage can be a pretty powerful motivator. There was a great video clip over at RossTraining about the type of inner rage that’s necessary for squatting really heavy weights (I mean stupid heavy!).
Now, I think I’m a pretty content and relaxed dude in most areas of my life, but I fully understand this idea. In a lot of athletic endeavours, anger probably makes people do dumb things and make mistakes. It’s probably best to cultivate more of a zen-like sense of calm detachment. Not so with the iron, at least in my humble opinion. Nothing gets that last rep off the ground like a healthy dose of pure rage.
But what’s a guy to do if he’s not humming with rage at all times. How to turn it on when needed? For me, music is a good way (not to mention a free, or at least very low cost way) to quickly tap into that wellspring. I always lift better with music. And here’s where I differ with Henry Rollins who wrote in his absolutely fantastic essay Iron and the Soul, in which he mentions how he mostly listens to ballads when lifting. As clichéd as it may sound, for me it has to be metal.
A lot of bands often do the trick for me – Primordial, Mastodon, early Tool (their later stuff is amazing but not as angry), Machinehead, Killswitch Engage, Protest the Hero. But no other band does it better than Lamb of God. Something about Randy Blythe’s vocals and the pure all-American thrash riffs...works every time.
One of my all-time favourites is the song Reclamation.
The whole song is kick-ass, but there’s one section where
the lyrics are:
“Only after the last tree's cut
and the last river poisoned,
only after the last fish is caught
will you find that money cannot be eaten”
At that point it just breaks down into the most vicious, demonic riffs on earth.
That, combined with the whole theme of the song about how we’re mindlessly trashing the planet to the detriment of future generations - As a father, that gets me pretty angry.
I was out at lunch doing muscle-ups on Wednesday – this song was playing, the snow was falling, wind blowing, the river iced over and the sky grey. It was pretty bleak. The song fades out to the sound of waves lapping against the shore. It struck me like the scene in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road when father and son finally make it to the sea, to find nothing but more ash and desolation.
Another fantastic motivator on the same album, fittingly titled ‘Wrath’, is a song called “Grace”.
I f@#king love this song, and for some reason the bit around the 1:45 mark give me tingles
every single time I hear it:
“Forgiving the father Read the story on my skin
Tell me more about the man I should have been,
I'll be the martyr
Falling from his grace again
This is where the end begins”
Now, given the band’s usual anti-religious themes, these lyrics are probably meant more in the celestial father sense but I always internalize them to take on a more familial undertone. Now, I don’t want to sound like a whiny little bitch here. I get along pretty well with my father these days and I really don’t have any bad feeling toward him. But the fact is, he took off when I was 2 months old and we were never close. I suppose there’s always been some underlying
resentment there, like I wasn’t good enough or something. Pretty stupid – a lot of people have had it a whole hell of a lot worse – fathers that beat them up or abused them. My own situation pales in comparison. But it’s still a good motivator. 99.9% of my life I harbour no ill will toward
my dad. But at the moment when I’ve got a few hundred pounds of iron across my shoulders, grinding out the last couple of reps, and that song comes on, I hate that motherf#(ker with every fiber of my being. And then it’s done. Catharsis.
Whatever it takes to spark that rage, find it and use it. I’ve had a pretty bloody fortunate life so I find it really hard to get angry about much. Music is a bit of a crutch I guess but, hey, whatever works, right? I think that’s one of the great things about lifting weights, sprinting, swinging a sledgehammer at tires – anything that demands giving 100% of your physical capacity. It’s a productive outlet for rage and anger – a release. Once you’ve used up that fuel, it’s gone and doesn’t negatively affect the rest of your life, until the next time you need it
Tuesday, 15 January 2013
Time is always an issue when it comes to scheduling workouts. I do my best to make sure I get a solid hour workout in, ideally twice per week, in my garage gym (usually some variation of squats, deadlifts or weighted chin-ups). With all the demands of work, family, life, etc. that uninterrupted time sometimes seems like an extravagance. It’s absolutely glorious when it happens. But what about all the other times, when you don’t have an hour to yourself to do whatever you want? That’s where very short, simple workouts come into play. It would almost be better to call them something else – Micro-workouts maybe. Essentially they involve strategically using opportunities throughout the day to get some quick, intense exercise in.
The trick, I find at least, is to fit this stuff in wherever the opportunity arises and to capitalize on time that might otherwise be wasted. In order to work, micro-workouts need to have the following characteristics:
- Require little to no equipment
- Require no warm-up
- Not demand special clothes or a shower afterwards
- Make use of small chunks of downtime or otherwise ‘wasted’ time
Perhaps the best way to describe this is through examples.
Most mornings I take my daughter to school (about 1km from our house). I could drop her off in the car on my way in to work, but instead I walk her there (also good exercise for her) and then sprint back to my house before going to work. The 1km sprint is a good mini-workout for me, and it essentially takes advantage of otherwise wasted time. Walking her to school and sprinting back takes hardly any more time than if I were to bundle her into a car seat, drive to the school, park, unbundle her from the car seat, etc., etc. I still get the same time to chat with her while we walk there, and then I can gun it home as fast as possible for a little bit of a burn in the morning. Another option I’ve been using, on winter days when I have to drop off both my kids in the morning (one at school and one at daycare), is to pull them there (running) in a little plastic sled ($13). They actually love it and it’s a quick workout for me.
Little bits of downtime work too. I can’t drop my daughter off at school until 8:45, and this morning we happened to be ready to go a few minutes early. So before we walked to school, she asked if we could do some exercise. When she says this she tends to mean me doing some sort of exercise with her and her brother hanging off me as ‘weights’. This morning it was push-ups with two kids (roughly 80lbs) on my back until I collapsed. Only took a minute or two, but it was good!
Another opportunity is small breaks that occur throughout the work day. Now, I’ve already written in another post about my preference for a bicycle commute. I used to bike all winter, prior to having kids, but now I’m a big baby. As soon as there’s a significant amount of snow and ice on the ground, I chicken out and usually take the car. Just a personal choice for me as a father – I totally applaud others who bike all year round. I’ve also made it pretty clear on this blog that I’m a cheap bastard. I don’t want to pay $100 a month to park at work (esp. when I only drive during the winter months) so I take advantage of 3 hour street parking near my building. What that means is that I have to move my car twice per day to avoid a ticket (Once at around noon and once at around 3pm). However, these are great opportunities to get a brief spell of exercise into a fairly sedentary workday. On average I park about 500 metres from my building. Therefore, to sprint to my car, move it a few blocks, and then sprint back to work takes between 5 and 7 minutes. It allows me to clock another 2 km of running throughout the course of a workday. And rather than being a distraction, it’s also a good mental break. I find that I often come up with new ideas or remember a forgotten task while I’m running to move my car. It actually increases productivity most of the time. Plus, it’s a short break from all the sitting that one does in an office job. Sitting is a slow death, really, so minimize it as much as possible. I have a friend who does the same ritual of moving his car throughout the day, although he uses the opportunity to crank out a few chin-ups, en route, on a nearby tree branch. Where I used to work, they were always doing repairs to the building and I used to take 5 minute breaks to do pull-ups/toes-to-bars, etc. on the metal scaffolding by the building entrance. The possibilities really are endless.
In a recent post I talked about lunchtime workouts. These needn’t be marathon sessions. For instance, I did ring muscle-ups at lunch yesterday, on the way back from moving my car. Only 3 sets and it took only 8 minutes from start to finish. Today I threw in a few sets of one-legged squats and reactive jumps on a low cement wall outside my building.
Other little breaks can be found throughout the day as well. On my way to the washroom, I often stop in the stairwell and crank out 2-3 sets of handstand push-ups. It bothers nobody (the stairwell on the seventeenth floor is sadly deserted most of the time). I suck at handstand push-ups and can only get a few reps per set, so the whole process might take 3-5 minutes max. Very easy to fit that in! I did so on three separate occasions during my workday today.
There’s absolutely nothing special about these specific ideas, and nothing unique about my situation. Many other ideas might be even better. It all depends on your specific context. Start to think of your environment as a potential playground. What could provide a physical challenge? How might you fit some short, intense physical challenge into your daily routine? We need to get away from treating a ‘workout’ only as some daunting, lengthy session that requires special clothes, special location, long warm-ups, showers, etc. That can be great, sometimes, but there’s also something to be gained by taking advantage of the stuff at the margins, the ‘wasted’ space, the small, serendipitous opportunities here and there.
Saturday, 22 December 2012
"Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look,
He thinks too much; such men are dangerous"
- Julius Caesar
He thinks too much; such men are dangerous"
- Julius Caesar
There’s a lot a buzz around fasting these days, at least in the health and fitness sphere. Sites, programs and e-books such as Leangains, Eat Stop Eat, The Warrior Diet, etc. have been both applauded and criticized by fitness devotees. I’m certainly not going to wade into any real debates on the topic (I’ll leave that to my betters). Rather, I’d like to just briefly summarize my own personal experiences with fasting, for whatever their worth, and some of the things I’ve learned.
For about a year or so, I’ve been pretty consistently following a Leangains-style eating pattern – that is, I fast for about 16 hours of every day and eat only during an 8-hour window (usually for me that between about 2pm and 10pm). I’m not militant about it, but I’d say that’s the case 95% of the time. Now to understand what a difference this has been for me, you must understand where I came from. Since about the age of 17 or so, I had always subscribed to the oft-held belief, disseminated by muscle magazines, mainstream health experts and common gym parlance, that one must eat regularly throughout the day to maintain a constant and efficient metabolism and to add muscle. This was taken to extremes in my early twenties when I would eat 8-9 meals throughout the day and then wake myself up in the dead of night to scarf down a plate of roast beef and potatoes! It worked in terms of weight gain (i.e. I got north of 280 lbs) but, compared to now, my strength-to-weight ratio was shit.
Even once my quest to occupy my own zip code gradually diminished, I still subscribed wholesale to the prevailing dogma of eating every two or three hours (albeit smaller amounts) to ‘stoke the metabolic furnace’. It’s a compelling analogy – that a person’s body essentially functions like a fireplace. Put too much wood on at a time, or wait too long between adding logs, and the fire dies (and by extension, metabolic disaster ensues, resulting in fat gain and muscle loss).
There’s only one small problem – the human body is infinitely more complex than a bloody fireplace! Any attempt to reduce the multiplicity of overlapping processes and regulatory systems at play to some kind of simple mechanical clockwork is doomed to failure. I stumbled upon this realization through a lot of reading on ancestral diets, paleo, primal, that kind of stuff. It just doesn’t make sense that the human species could have survived and thrived throughout our prehistory by sticking to a rigid, eat-every-three-hours style of feeding. Ours is a history of feasts and famines, both short and long term. Is it really conceivable that ancient hunters on the savannah were stopping midway through stalking a gazelle to quickly down a protein smoothie or grab a handful of almonds from a Tupperware container? No dammit, they just went hungry until they eventually caught the gazelle, dragged its ass back to camp, butchered it, and then had a big party (likely gorging themselves until they fell asleep) and then got up and did it all again next year. There was no, “Sorry Lothar, I’d really love to go hunting with you today but I really need to stoke my metabolism first with a hearty breakfast of steel-cut oatmeal.” If you were that guy, you probably didn’t want to turn your back on all your buddies with the pointy sticks.
Now this is all anecdotal of course. I’m no more an anthropologist than I am an exercise physiologist, but I can tell you what the benefits of intermittent fasting have been for me:
- I get hungry less in the mid-morning. When I used to eat a solid breakfast (and I’m talking substantial stuff like eggs, dairy, oatmeal, etc. – not the typical bagel or muffin bullshit that some people call breakfast), I’d inevitably be starving again by 10am. I still wake up hungry now, but I find that if I can push past that initial 15 minutes of hunger, it subsides and I don’t even think about food throughout most of the morning. I find this also results in a higher degree of focus at work.
- I can maintain a slightly lower bodyfat percentage, with minimal effort. I haven’t reached any kind of completely shredded levels like many have on Leangains or similar programs, but I’m a bit more cut than I was in the past on a more frequent, yet stricter, eating pattern. Certainly I worry less, when I do eat, about specific macronutrient ratios and stuff like that, and yet the results are slightly better from a body composition point of view. Muscle certainly hasn’t melted away (as some fear will happen if you skip a meal).
- My eating window coincides well with a noon-hour workout (I almost said lunch hour there! See how like conditioned little lab rats we’ve become). As I mentioned in a previous post, I like to get my workouts in wherever possible, and this often includes the typical midday break in a traditional workday. There a lot of pretty solid evidence out there for the fat loss benefits of training while fasted, as well as the advantages of a substantial post-workout meal for muscle growth. Since I usually eat my first meal of the day around 2pm, at which point I usually am famished, I can use this as a post-workout gorge-fest.
- It works well with a busy family. Like many parents, mornings with two young children are a shit-show. My wife and I can spend our time getting a healthy breakfast for them (no, I don’t force my dietary predilections on my kids, especially since it seems logical that babies and children would need much more stable, consistent nourishment) and enjoying their company, rather than scrambling to feed ourselves too.
- It provides a daily dose of humility. So many of us exist in such a well-fed, indulged state most of the time, never experiencing genuine hunger. It’s easy to forget that huge numbers of people throughout the world (let alone in our own country) go without food on a daily basis, involuntarily. I have the supreme luxury of not having to worry where my next meal is coming from, but at least a daily experience of hunger, voluntary and minimal as it is, serves as a reminder that not everyone is so fortunate.
- It makes food taste better. Connected to the last point, I suspect that much of the reason why people often turn to over-sweetened, over-salted foods is that a lack of true hunger has effectively deadened and desensitized our societal taste buds to simple food and simple flavours. I’m not sure who coined the phrase “Hunger is the best sauce”, but it’s strikingly true. After 16 hours without food, a simple apple tastes infinitely better than a sickeningly sweet pastry would after just a short time.
- I think it ultimately means spending less money on food, due to a gradual caloric deficit over the long term. This seems a propos to the whole Hobofit gestalt. Simpler, less money, better results – not to mention not worrying about stopping to mix up a protein shake the next time you have to chase down a passing boxcar.